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Rewind 2019: Coming-of-age drama ‘Little Women’ tops list

Dana Barbuto
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Dipping bread in wine, known as Intinction, speaks to the shared Catholic traditions of Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro).

The past year’s film viewing started with the comedy “The Upside” and ended 170 movies later with the pulse-pounding “Midnight Family,” a documentary about private ambulance workers in Mexico City. In between there were gems, both uncut and precious, and not from Disney or Marvel, which takes the year’s five top grossing movies: “Avengers: Endgame,” “The Lion King,” “Toy Story 4,” “Captain Marvel” and “Frozen 2.” None of those titles make my list of favorites, though I have a soft spot for “Endgame.” My picks might not be cinematic masterpieces in the snobby auteur sense, but, boy, did they make me feel alive. Per usual, it was a challenge to come up with just 10 favorite films. This list changed daily, but since deadline is hovering, I’ll leave you with this lineup:

1. “LITTLE WOMEN”: Louisa May Alcott’s 150-year-old novel about four sisters coming-of-age in Civil War-era Massachusetts fit our modern sensibilities like a glove. In the hands of writer-director Greta Gerwig, it’s a perfect match of artist and material, all fortified by a stellar cast of Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Timothee Chalamet, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper. I’ve seen it twice, and the second viewing wrecked me more than the first. Alexandre Desplat’s evocative score is the cherry on top. (In theaters)

2. “ONCE UPON A TIME IN … HOLLYWOOD”: Quentin Tarantino films are so much fun to watch. And this one, his valentine to Tinseltown set against a revisionist take on the Manson Murders, is no exception. Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt do their best work in years as fictional, fading movie star and his longtime stunt double. Margo Robbie adds a ghostly presence as doomed starlet Sharon Tate. What results is hilarious, gruesome and perfectly Tarantino. Anyone know where I can get a flamethrower? (Available on demand and all the streaming spots)

3. “THE IRISHMAN”: If you didn’t see this in theaters, then you really missed out. Martin Scorsese’s takes the gangster genre on a last hurrah with a dream cast of Robert Di Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel. It’s de riguer Scorsese, gripping, tense, violent, but it’s also something more: profound. This is the director, and cast, playing on the back nine of their careers and looking back through a lens clouded with regrets, the biggest being the daughter who will never come to visit. It’s an unexpected gut punch from a bunch of wise guys. (Netflix)

4. “FORD V FERRARI”: Christian Bale as legendary driver Ken Miles and Matt Damon as designer Carroll Shelby make a great duo, but James Mangold’s race-car drama, has more under the hood than hot rods and hunky men. The film tracks the rivalry between the two automakers and the showdown at 1966’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, considered the race of all endurance races. It’s about the human spirit, ingenuity and overcoming obstacles in pursuit of greatness - and sticking it to “The Man.” The filmmakers use heart and humor and immersive driving scenes to keep their movie revved. Plus, Tracy Letts as blusterous Henry Ford II is a treasure. (In theaters)

5. “BOMBSHELL”: I don’t know why this movie isn’t being talked about more. It’s a bold film that shows sexual harassment in the workplace (in this case Fox News) from the female point of view. That’s a damn revelation - ditto for the performances. Charlize Theron transforms into Megyn Kelly to drive the movie, but supporting turns by Margo Robbie, Kate McKinnon and Nicole Kidman also impress. Director Jay Roach works in the fourth-wall breaking style of “The Big Short” and “Vice” to tell the story that brought down Fox News founder, the repulsive Roger Ailes (John Lithgow). It’s entertaining and infuriating all at once. (In theaters)

6. “A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD”: Tom Hanks slips into the red cardigan of children’s TV show host Fred Rogers to dole out lessons in kindness to a jaded journalist (Matthew Rhys) and his estranged father (Kingston’s Chris Cooper). Directed by Marielle Heller, the fact-based film slyly stays with you, its power sneaking up days later. Most of that is due to Hanks welding the pieces together with another Oscar-worthy performance. The movie is an achievement, one that feels like one big group hug. (In theaters)

7. “PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE”: French auteur Céline Sciamma knocked me out with her last film, “Girlhood,” and she does it again with her shattering tale of love, loss and self-discovery. Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel are breathtaking as the young lovers, a painter and her subject, caught in the crosshairs of desire and socially dictated gender roles in 18th-century France. The film is a slow burn, bolstered by Claire Mathon’s lush cinematography that makes it look like a painting come to life. I didn’t want it to end. (Opening Feb. 14)

8. “JOKER”: Todd Phillips’ take on the origin story of Batman’s nemesis packed a punch. It’s provocative, fun but also frustrating. And, I’m still randomly thinking about it three months later - the maniacal laugh, the dancing on the stairs, the closing shot. Joaquin Phoenix’s melding of heart and menace as the murderous clown is pitch-perfect, an elusive duplicity that’s hard to pull off (just ask Kylo Ren). (On DVD Jan. 7)

9. “KNIVES OUT”: Money, privilege and murder are the ingredients for Rian Johnson’s madcap murder mystery. When Harlan (Christopher Plummer), a famous crime novelist, turns up dead, his family members are grilled by detectives in a movie filled with sharp objects and an eccentric cast of characters played by Chris Evans, Toni Collette, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Ana de Armas, Lakeith Stanfield and Michael Shannon. Daniel Craig is wonderful as the “Kentucky-fried” version of Hercule Poirot trying to sort it all out. (In theaters)

10. “BLINDED BY THE LIGHT”: Writer-director Gurinder Chadha tackles a coming-of-age tale that follows a London teenager, Javid (an adorable Viveik Kalra), who finds his way in life through the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen songs. This is a sentimental pick that transports me right back to the front row of a 1992 Springsteen concert at the Garden. The Springsteen fan in me LOVED the movie and all its genuflecting to The Boss as poet and prophet. It was a nostalgia trip through the “Tunnel of Love,” ending up in the “Promised Land.” (On DVD and the usual streaming spots)

THE NEXT 15: “Parasite,” “Jojo Rabbit,” “The Two Popes,” “The Farewell,” “Richard Jewell,” “Avengers: End Game,” “Wild Rose,” “Booksmart,” “1917,” “Uncut Gems,” “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” “Honey Boy,” “Nightingale,” “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” “Fighting with My Family.”

A DOZEN DOCS: “Apollo 11,” “Jim Allison: Breakthrough,” “For Sama,” “The Biggest Little Farm,” “Midnight Family,” “Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins,” “Ask Dr. Ruth,” “The Great Hack,” “One Child Nation,” “Love, Antosha,” “Scandalous,” “American Factory.”

A DOZEN DUDS: “Escape Room,” “The Hustle,” “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” “X-Men: Dark Phoenix,” “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” “Serenity,” “The Kitchen,” “Beach Bum,” “The Goldfinch,” “Lucy in the Sky,” “High Life,” “Cats.”

FIVE FOREIGN FAVORITES: “Pain and Glory,” “Les Miserables,” “Transit,” “By the Grace of God,” “Synonyms.”

… AND MORE ACCOLADES

Best surprise: Shia LaBeouf’s “Honey Boy.”

Second best surprise: Adam Sandler in “Uncut Gems.”

Best Chris: Hemsworth as Fat Thor in “Avengers: End Game.”

Best Chris in a sweater: Evans in the white cable knit in “Knives Out.”

Best comeback: Joe Pesci in “The Irishman.”

Best cry: A sobbing Tracy Letts in “Ford v Ferrari.”

Biggest heart: “The Peanut Butter Falcon”

A line to remember: “Always charge a gun, with a knife, you run,” from “The Irishman.”

Best animated: “Toy Story 4”

Best pole dance: Jennifer Lopez in “Hustlers.”

Best dancer: Julianne Moore in “Gloria Bell.”

Worst kiss: Mass murderer Kylo Ren and Jedi Rey in “The Rise of Skywalker.”

Most exciting fight scene: Captain America (Chris Evans) grabbing Thor’s mystical hammer to pummel Thanos (Josh Brolin) in “Avengers: Endgame.”

Best singing: Adam Driver crooning Sondheim’s “Being Alive” in “Marriage Story.”

Best comedy: “Long Shot”

Best cameo: Keanu Reeves in “Always Be My Maybe.”

The triple threat: Florence Pugh for “Midsommar,” “Fighting With My Family” and “Little Women.”

Best kid performances: Julia Butters in “Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood” and Noah Jupe in “Honey Boy.”

Best animal performance: Cliff’s pit bull, Brandy, in “Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood.”

Biggest letdown: “The Rise of Skywalker”

Best prop: Rick Dalton’s flamethrower in “Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood.”

Most twisted: Ari Aster’s “Midsommar.”

Worst roommates: Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in “The Lighthouse.”

Best revival: “Downton Abbey”

Best outerwear: J-Lo’s fur coat in “Hustlers.”

Best war drama: “1917”

Saddest goodbye: Tony Stark as Iron Man

Goosebumps alert: In “Endgame,” when Cap commands: “Avengers, assemble!”

That’s a wrap, folks. Now bring on “Top Gun: Maverick.”

Dana Barbuto may be reached at dbarbuto@patriotledger.com or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.